Rediscovering development cooperation that works

At a recent meeting of OECD Development Experts, I was asked to talk about how the changing global landscape is affecting, or better said, should be affecting how development agencies do their work. A particular issue, I was asked to focus on was populism. In industrialised countries, populism is generally perceived to be about people turning away from established policies, for example on membership of the European Union or Official Development Assistance. In developing nations, populism is often associated with people turning their backs on the established order, in pursuit of organisations they hope will serve their interests better, sometimes, in extremist quarters.

I must admit my take on populism is a bit more simplistic. In developing countries billions of people are so poor that they live completely outside the formal economy, lacking a home address, bank account, access to social services and education. Sometimes their efforts to fend for themselves have fatal consequences when these bring them into conflict with established “law and order”. In rich countries, people question some of the grand schemes being bought-into, on their behalf. Like their counterparts in poor nations, they are basically interested in a good job, a decent wage and a safe environment to live in. They feel their elected politicians are far removed, espousing issues with which they do not connect. I must say these are versions of populism for which I have some sympathy.

These two versions of populism now seem to be coming into either a headlong confrontation with each other, or entering a whirlwind of mutually increasing force. What do I mean? Poor governance, insecurity, poverty, environmental disasters and a host of other problems are driving more and more poor people in developing “nations” to seek a good job, a decent wage and a safe environment in other parts of the world. Sometimes as economic migrants, sometimes as refugees, often as both. Increasingly resources from the North are seemingly being used to prevent people from getting to where they want to go, as opposed to helping them to stay, where they want to be. Aid budgets are being used to fund refugee camps and enhance border security. Less money seems to be going to what many really want, which is the chance to stay and prosper, at home.

SRI currently has the honour of working with an organisation that is seeking to find a sustainable way out of this conundrum. The International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) has re-positioned its vision, mission and goals to focus on supporting sustainable livelihoods in dryland areas. Situated in a region, where many of the economic and political migrants are coming from, it is adjusting its services to respond to global and regional challenges, has re-oriented its resource mobilisation strategy and is taking appropriate solutions to scale, by working with local partners and the private sector.

If you think about the millions of people struggling to survive in growing arid regions, the fact that half of all the food humanity produce is grown on farms of less than two acres and the improvements ICARDA is bringing to the lives of poor people in areas they actually want to stay, then this is probably a great way of addressing both sides of the coin, I have described as populism!

Yvo de Boer

Partner, SRI Executive (Strategy)